Foods that should be fortifying become frightening when allergies or intolerances are thrown into the mix. The body misidentifies certain foods as malicious invaders, responding suddenly and violently with an allergic reaction. Fortunately, these reactions aren’t typically an issue for infants, but babies may have trouble digesting some types of formula (especially dairy-based), or there could be an incompatibility with your breast milk if you’re eating foods that don’t agree with baby (again, dairy is the most common offender).
Maybe your family will be lucky enough to avoid any kind of food allergy or intolerance. Even so, it benefits our community when each of us becomes aware of the dietary hazards threatening some of those around us.
Detecting a disturbance
Michelle Johnson of North Salt Lake, Utah, noticed unusual symptoms in her second baby by the time he was a month old. “Chase would scream and arch his back after eating, kind of like he had gas, but gas drops didn’t help at all,” recalls Johnson. “He would get diarrhea and a red rash on his bum. He also spit up quite a bit, so the doctor thought it was reflux and gave us some drops, which didn’t seem to help much.”
Melissa Efferth of Milton, Georgia, also saw early signs that something might be impeding her baby’s digestion. “Walker was formula-fed and constantly spit up … 12 to 15 times per day. He also had eczema really early, like at his 1-month checkup,” Efferth says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) identifies the following symptoms of allergic reactions: hives, rashes (namely eczema), swelling, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea (possibly with blood in the stool) and circulation problems sometimes leading to loss of consciousness. If baby experiences any of these, contact your doctor or rush to the ER if the reaction is severe.
With lesser reactions, baby may be experiencing an intolerance rather than a full-blown allergy. Either way, dietary changes are in order, and your pediatrician can best help you to diagnose the issue and redirect baby’s meal plan.
Pinpointing the problem
In Johnson’s case, her baby’s nurse suggested that Chase could have food sensitivities, prompting her to gather information and make some changes. After consulting with her doctor, she began to cut foods from her diet, one at a time for four to six weeks, starting with the most common allergens.
Throughout the process, it became clear that Chase harbored intolerances to both dairy and wheat. When Johnson cut these foods from her meals, thus altering the content of her breast milk, there was a positive and very obvious turnaround. “After about a month, he was like a different baby,” she says.
Although Efferth tried several different formulas, Walker continued to have digestive issues. Her pediatrician thought it was reflux at the time, but in hindsight, Efferth blames food allergies. Walker had an anaphylactic reaction to something containing egg when he was 12 months old and was subsequently diagnosed with an egg allergy. A skin prick test for the eight most common allergens revealed that he was also allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. Now, years later, his allergies are severe, causing vomiting and skin reactions when he is exposed even to small traces of the allergens.
Because Johnson was adamant about breastfeeding—rather than putting her baby on an allergen-free formula—she was willing to give up dairy and gluten for the next 14 months as she nursed her little boy.
Just to test the water, she would occasionally reintroduce questionable ingredients into her own diet. “Any time I would try to sneak in a little dairy or gluten, he would react again,” she says. She delayed feeding Chase solids and nursed a little longer than she might have otherwise, hoping to give her baby’s digestive system more time to mature.
Likewise, if you suspect your baby might have food intolerances or allergies, consult with your pediatrician before offering solid foods. Especially if you have a family history of allergies, your doctor may want to proceed with caution, testing foods or doing a skin prick test before introducing the ingredients in greater quantities.
It used to be that the AAP discouraged introducing possible allergens—peanut products, for example—until baby was older, but this recommendation changed in 2008 due to scientific reassessment. Now, studies have shown that introducing peanut butter earlier in baby’s life could actually prevent allergy development. Because there is no specific age given for introducing peanuts, eggs, fish or other foods, check with your pediatrician for personal advice. And still, proceed with extreme caution if baby has shown signs of allergies or if they run in the family.
“We had Chase skin-tested for allergies and were informed that he has intolerances, not allergies, so he should hopefully outgrow them,” says Johnson. Because of his digestive problems, she waited about a year before introducing solids, and didn’t bring out any potentially troublesome foods until he was 18 months old. Then, she would occasionally add a bit of gluten or dairy to his diet to check the status of the food intolerances.
At 20 months, Chase finally began to tolerate gluten; today, at age 2, Chase is still intolerant of milk products, but Johnson hopes for an eventual reversal.
Walker, on the other hand, has potent food allergies that could be life-lasting. Efferth must be militant in avoiding eggs, peanuts and tree nuts, or Walker is at risk of anaphylaxis. Parents in like situations keep reaction-arresting EpiPens at home and at daycare, which can save lives in an emergency. The more aware parents and child-care providers become of food allergies, the safer these high-risk kids will be.